You Can Learn A Lot About How the US Government Really Works By Watching The British Sitcom “Yes, Minister”

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything.  I’ve been busy editing two manuscripts and they have been keeping me busy as of late.  Here is my latest musings on the topic of government.  I hope you enjoy it.

If you have never watched the British comedies “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister,” I encourage you to do so.  My local PBS station has been showing them lately, and even though these shows were filmed in the late 70’s and early 80’s, they are completely relevant to what’s going on here in the United States today.

The basic storyline is this: a well-meaning member of the British Parliament, a real “man of the people” who later becomes Prime Minister, is appointed to a Cabinet Minister post in the new government.  He accepts this post with enthusiasm as he prepares to implement the policies and platforms that he and his party ran under during the general election.  However, once he arrives at his new office, he is greeted by his two chief administrators – highly educated, snobbish, career bureaucrats who have their own ideas about how the government should be run and what policies should be implemented “for the good of the people.”

Each episode shows how the enthusiasm and even the principles of the Minister are slowly squashed as he discovers that the bureaucracy – which was elected by no one, is answerable to no one, and obeys no one – is actually in control of the country and that, as Minister, he has little or no control over how the government operates and what it accomplishes.  For every policy he tries to implement and every change to government practices he tries to introduce, his department throws up roadblock after roadblock so, in the end, nothing gets accomplished except what the department wanted accomplished in the first place.  He discovers that the members of Parliament may be answerable to the voters in their constituencies, but have no way to accomplish anything that they promised their voters in order to get elected.

How often do we see this played out here in the United States today?  Well-meaning, potentially ethical and hardworking politicians are elected and sent to Washington, but most of them rarely accomplish what they set out to accomplish – or at least promised they would accomplish. Many end up voting for legislation they either haven’t read, don’t understand, or which violates every principle they claimed to have when they were elected.  As voters, if we are dissatisfied with the performance of our elected officials, we can exercise our right to “vote the bums out” and replace them with candidates we hope will do what we want them to do.

Why then does nothing ever seem to change in Washington?

The answer is simple.  Our elected officials don’t run the government.  The unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy runs the government, and therefore the country.

Centuries ago, our fledgling government commissioned the creation of various departments within the government to help administer and enforce legislation passed by congress and signed into law by the President.  As the country grew and more demands were placed on the government, departments grew and more departments were added.  Elected officials came and went, but these departments became the one true constant in our government.  They were employed to carry out the wishes of the elected officials, and by extension the people of the United States, but they soon realized that accountability cannot be held by masters who come and go every few years.  They began to see themselves as the true government, acting on behalf of what was “best” for the country in spite of the changing temperament of the electorate.

Just as in “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister,” every elected official in our government has a staff.  This staff answers the phones, conducts polls, drafts legislation, summarizes legislation, and controls the schedule of their elected officials.  The have absolute control over the flow of information.  Elected officials, who don’t have time to read thousands of pages of legislation, only know what their staff tells them through briefs and summaries.  Legislation could actually say one thing, but the elected officials could be told something else entirely.  Legislation could be drafted to say one thing when the elected official wanted it to say something completely different.  The mood of the voters, which many elected officials used to guide their voting practices, may be one thing, but the elected officials could be told it was something completely different.

The staff tells the elected official what the staff wants the elected official to know and nothing more, thereby ensuring that the elected official will act just as the staff wants.  And when the elected official is voted out of office, the staff remains – waiting for the next unsuspecting elected official to pick up where the last one left off – just as clueless, just as naive, and just as controllable as all his or her predecessors.

Americans believe that they are the masters of the government and that the government serves the will of the people.  They believe that it is through exercising their right to vote that the government’s actions can be shifted based on the will of the people.  They believe that elected officials act in the best interest of the people who elected them to office.  And they are all equally wrong.

The bureaucracy, which actually operates the government, is the master of the government and the people.  It does not get elected, does not care what the voters want, does not care what the elected officials want, and believes that it alone knows what is in the best interest of the people.  Created to administer legislation, these government departments now create their own legislation with only the most negligible interference from the ever-changing elected officials.  They no longer exist to serve; they exist to control, and there are few aspects of life in America that they don’t have tremendous influence over.

For years, many Americans have been clamoring for term limits to eliminate career politicians, and while this is a worthy change that is long overdue, it, in and of itself, will not solve the problem of unresponsive government.  The problem is not limited to elected officials.  It encompasses elected, appointed, employed and contracted members of the government apparatus.  Until steps are taken to eliminate career bureaucrats and bring these bloated and unaccountable departments back under the control of the people’s representatives, no action by the people will ever bring about real change in the government of the United States.

“Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” may be entertaining shows about politics in Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century, but beneath its humor lies a haunting and very real commentary on the nature of bureaucracies all over the world.  They exist to perpetuate their own existence, and their existence depends on eliminating all potential interference – whether it comes from the people or their elected representative.

If the people of the United States truly want to take back their country from the unresponsive, and frankly out of control, government, they must not delude themselves into thinking that it is by changing the elected officials alone that real change can be accomplished.  The existing government apparatus must also be changed, and that means eliminating the power of the bureaucracy and, to the extent possible, shrinking it until it is truly nothing more than an administrator of legislation rather than the unelected and unaccountable master of “We The People Of The United States.”

About wbspeirjr

Author of "Muzzle-Loading Artillery for Reenactors," the 9-book action/adventure series "The Knights of the Saltier," five historical novels ("King's Ransom," "The Saga of Asbjorn Thorleikson," "Nicaea - The Rise of the Imperial Church," "Arthur, King," "The Besieged Pharaoh"), the sci fi novel "The Olympium of Bacchus 12," and the fantasy novel "The Kingstone of Airmid." William is also a 5-time Royal Palm Literary Award winner: 2014 Second Place Unpublished Historical Fiction for "King’s Ransom," 2015 Second Place Unpublished Historical Fiction for "The Saga of Asbjorn Thorleikson," 2017 Second Place Published Historical Fiction for Arthur, King," 2017 First Place Published Historical Fiction for "Nicaea – The Rise of the Imperial Church," and 2017 First Place Published Science Fiction for "The Olympium of Bacchus 12."
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